A Kansas City Activist Takes The Minimum-Wage Fight To Washington
When Terrence Wise testified in front of Congress on Feb. 7, it wasn't the first time he'd visited Washington. The minimum-wage worker and organizer introduced former President Barack Obama at a 2015 Worker Voice Summit at the White House.
Wise, who lives in Independence, Missouri, and has worked in fast food for years, was in Washington this time to speak with members of the Democrat-controlled House Education and Labor Committee. He was part of a panel speaking about gradually raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
"I kind of figured that it was the first time that some of our Congress people heard from a real working American," he said, "not only to hear that someone's working poor, but to hear the intimate details."
Those details include Wise's multiple and sometimes sustained experiences with homelessness, hunger and just not being able to make ends meet.
For lawmakers who hear those details, Wise said, "it's really eye-opening, because it's real and it's what's happening in households all across the country and it forces you to deal with it."
But it's not clear what concerned lawmakers might be able to do for workers like Wise. Any bill passed by the House addressing the issue would have to make it through a Republican Senate and an unpredicatable chief executive, though, as a candidate, President Trump did express support for a minimum-wage hike.
"I think there is a long journey ahead, but at the same time we've seen a lot of political success," said Ben Zipperer of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "There are a lot of states and local areas that are passing minimum-wage increases."
Missouri is one of those places. In November, the state's voters approved increasing the wage to $12 an hour by 2023.
The federal minimum wage, at $7.25 an hour, was last increased a decade ago.
Since then, Zipperer said, "the costs of food and housing and health insurance, et cetera, have gotten more expensive, and as a result, what you're able to buy with that minimum wage has fallen over the last 10 years by about 15 percent."
It's a situation that has low-wage workers like Wise struggling to get ahead, and searching for a voice.
"I'm doing what Mom said to do: 'Be a good citizen, work hard, everything will be all right.' We are doing that and it's not us that is at fault — it's this broken economy and the broken system," Wise said.
After years of organizing workers, leading strikes across the country — all while holding down his minimum-wage job — Wise said he's seen the results.
"I know what my testimony and the testimony of workers across this country have done, and it's lifted wages for 22 million (workers)," he said.
"The only thing not only my employer but most of these politicians respond to is pressure," he said. "They don't just wake up ... and say, 'You know what? Let's do what's right for workers and the people.'"
Terrence Wise and Ben Zipperer spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.
Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.